The debate over the Alabama Accountability Act was ugly, both because it took place after the Legislature passed it and because it revealed a troubling deference among lawmakers to scholastic corporations with large lobbying budgets.
One positive arising from the debate is it forced Alabama to focus on one of its greatest problems: generational poverty.
The schools that meet the law’s definition of “failing” have much in common. They typically have a high percentage of black children, almost all of whom come from impoverished families.
With American optimism, we want to believe we can solve the problem of failing schools. With Alabama simplicity fostered by ideological legislators, we want to believe the problem is the teachers employed at the “government schools.”
There is reason to believe, however, that the problem has less to do with inadequate instruction than with the bleak circumstances of the students.
One in five Alabamians live in poverty. Almost one in two black Alabama children live in poverty. Half of Alabama children, regardless of race, live below 200 percent of the poverty line. Few of the families are just experiencing temporary financial difficulties. The parents of most impoverished children did not graduate from high school and almost none attended college. The children are mired in generational poverty.
I witnessed an incident that helped me understand the issue. An honors student at a local high school was an undocumented immigrant. He excelled at almost everything. After the passage of Alabama’s punitive immigration law, both his behavior and his grades changed. He was convinced he could not attend college. He expected he would have to return to Mexico, which his family had left when he was a child because of the extreme poverty and lack of opportunity. The honor-roll student suddenly began failing his classes. The dreams he had of success disappeared with the law’s passage. He was depressed and apathetic, foregoing homework for more enjoyable distractions.
When federal courts struck down most of the immigration law, his grades immediately improved. He resumed his status as a role model for his classmates.
Children locked in generational poverty see no chance for success. Their parents and siblings and friends have no way out, and they have no reason to think their plight is any brighter.
Imagine if you had a teacher who put an “F” on your report card before the semester began. The only issue was whether you would work hard and get a 59 or not work at all and get a zero. Failure is inevitable. How hard will you work? If the decision is between having fun with your friends or doing your homework, which will win out?
Those in generational poverty confront a similar question, but the “F” is a measure of their income potential. While those of us outside of their circumstances may rationally believe they could escape poverty with hard work and good grades, they know otherwise. Their parents and friends and siblings know otherwise. Even if they apply themselves in school, they have every reason to believe their future holds no more promise of an escape from poverty than it does for the people who surround them.
As a state and nation, tackling the problem of generational poverty presents two separate issues. The first is making sure there is a way out for the children. If there is a path out of poverty, the second issue is how to make sure the children know it.
Unfortunately, a trend in national politics is to eliminate opportunities for the poor. A budget proposed by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., last week makes dramatic cuts to programs for the poor, replacing them with tax cuts that primarily benefit the wealthy. He would reduce health-care availability, pre-kindergarten programs, K-12 funding, food assistance, housing options and the Pell grants that provide the only path to college for most children living in poverty.
Most of the headlines on the sequestration cuts that took effect March 1 focus on reductions in defense spending and White House tours, but the most damaging cuts come from programs designed to provide opportunities for the poor.
In short, national budgetary trends tend to confirm the grim expectations of many Alabamians in generational poverty. They are destined to fail. Unlike those in more prosperous communities, they have no American Dream. They have only a deep-rooted knowledge that their scorecard for life already is marked with an “F.”
Teachers can and should play a role in pointing children toward a pathway out of poverty, but they can only do so if that pathway exists. For those in generational poverty, the pathway is narrow, steep and rarely traveled. Until society acknowledges the problem and seeks to correct it, the incentive structure upon which our economy is based will remain irrelevant to the poorest Alabamians.
Eric Fleischauer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 256-340-2435.